Alex Branson joined the BBC as a trainee production assistant (PA) in the 1960s. Like most trainee PAs Alex’s career started with an 8 week training course and a two year ‘panel’ during which she was sent to work on a variety of programmes throughout the BBC. Alex’s first permanent role came in the Archaeology and History Unit and, as a result, Alex spent a significant amount of her early career in deserts and jungles throughout the world. During this time, Alex worked on programmes such as Chronicle, Archeology of the Bible Lands, and The Vikings.
The work of the PA was crucial to the successful running of a film shoot both in planning and out on location. Prior to the actual shoot, the PA would be responsible for organising multiple aspects of the production. From accommodation and restaurant bookings to visas and import permits, the PA ensured that the logistics were meticulously planned, and therefore enabled the crew to focus solely on preparing their equipment and approach for the specifics of the upcoming shoot.
When on location, the role of the PA was twofold. During the working day the PA was responsible for a number of significant and highly skilled technical tasks. Armed with stopwatches, PAs were tasked with ensuring the shoot ran exactly to time. Over-running when shooting with 16mm film was incredibly expensive and, as a result, managing the time, and available budget, when out on location was of paramount importance.
Alex was also responsible for the logging of all information on every shot taken throughout the day. This important task involved sitting next to the cameraman and noting down the shot type, length and all additional information which would help the editor organise the footage later on.
Once rushes had been dispatched back to London, the PA was responsible for communicating with the Film Operations Manager to check the day’s work once it had been reviewed. On receiving this feedback, PAs like Alex would liaise with the director and cameraman and, together, decide whether it was feasible to reshoot any sequences which had not met the BBC’s standards.
The second aspect of the PA’s work was to look after the crew’s every need. From making them aware of the schedule to providing first aid, the PA was responsible for keeping the crew happy and ensuring the smooth running of the shoot. Alex remembers that organising good lunch breaks and, most importantly, good wine were key to a happy, well functioning crew. During this period, production assistants were often the only women working on film crews. They frequently found themselves working late, completing paperwork and negotiating meals and accommodation, while other crew members were able to rest.
For Alex, a significant factor when working as a PA was the lack of available communication. Call boxes and hotel phones were often the only form of communication and, as such, when out on location in South America or other distant locations, it was crucial that the PA was able to think on their feet and use their wits to deal with situations as and when they arose.
PAs were sometimes referred to as ‘sweetie girls’ because they kept a supply of boiled sweets to distribute to members of the film crew. This affectionate but dismissive nickname hides both the skill and resourcefulness required of PAs.